The Fallacy of Multi-Tasking (Or How to Stop Trying to Do It All, All at Once)


[su_dropcap style=”flat”]I[/su_dropcap]WAS ON A CALL with a couple of colleagues the other day when I got an idea for a blog about “The Fallacy of Multitasking” so I jotted it down, thereby missing the next minute of the call…and proving my point.

In a report on multi-tasking, NPR interviewed Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT who said, “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not.” His research shows that the brain has to fight to resolve the conflict that inevitably arises when you try to focus on one thing while doing another. In this video interview, Dr. Romilla Mushtag talks about how multitasking can actually make critical areas of the brain smaller.

Why in the face of contrary evidence, do otherwise rational people continue to believe that multitasking is possible? Because we have to! Because we’re desperate for a way to get through the too-many-commitments, too-much-information, too-many-devices of the never-ending stampede of our days.

So is there a way to calm our brains, reduce our stress and get the things done that really matter? Try these instead:

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  • Turn off the text notification on the phone – so you don’t prioritize an interruption over the task you’re trying to focus on
  • Close the email program when you’re on a call – do you really need to know right this second that you’ve gotten a new email?
  • The same goes for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. – schedule times for social media and otherwise turn them off
  • Practice regular meditation – like the neuroscience on the myth of multitasking, there is scientific evidence that even a few minutes of daily meditation will calm our minds and improve our focus
  • Be realistic – with the amount of new information available every minute of every hour of every day, you will never know even a micro-fraction of it all (Besides, most of it is junk anyway)
  • Set the right priorities – What are the things that really matter? The things will serve your clients, grow your business, enhance your relationships and improve life.
  • Stay focused – given the demands of our jobs and our busy lives, saying “no” can often be a more positive response than saying “yes”[/message][su_spacer]

Author Confession: While writing this, I responded to a few emails, signed a document for my realtor and almost ordered a book on-line. Clearly, I’ve got a lot of work to do!


Margaretta Noonan
Margaretta Noonan
While still a senior executive at a global company, Margaretta Noonan started asking herself, “Am I All There?” After several years of exploring the topic of employee engagement – her own included; Margaretta co-founded ngage, a technology-enabled solution that creates a continuous connection between employees and managers about the issues that are critical to organizational success;. Margaretta spent 30 years in Human Resources and senior leadership with global Fortune 500 companies in the retail and professional services industries. Knowing that a company is only ever as strong as the talent inside it – in addition to ngage, Margaretta heads a woman-owned consulting business, noonanWorks (, dedicated to working at the intersection of employee engagement / customer engagement and financial results.

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  1. I just read a study about this exact topic and as you mention here, this study says multi-tasking shrinks our brain capacity. I think there are times when multitasking is appropriate. Think of doing household tasks, such as the dinner hour. I find it necessary to answer homework questions, use the mixer, pop things into the microwave, bundle the trash, set the table, and make coffee – and while each task is separate, I am pretty much doing them all at once.

    Where multi-tasking is detrimental is when we try to migrate between tasks of multiple projects all at once instead of focusing on one at at time until reaching a level that we set as a good stopping point. Or trying to have a phone conversation and answer email on one screen while watching a webinar on another, and filing papers between breaths. That is a recipe for high impact stress.

    I don’t know if I’m off base here, but that’s how I view multi-tasking.

    • I think you’re right, Jane, that trying to rapidly sequence the types of tasks that you describe in your last paragraph leads to stress and error. But I think that even the “multi-tasking” that you describe in your first paragraph is really just rapid sequencing, rather than true multi-tasking. At least I hope so because I can’t afford any brain shrink!

    • LOL Margaretta – I hope you’re right about the sequencing too. I have to admit I sometimes think I could be losing brain cells as my head spins.

  2. Whats in a name….
    In my opinion this is a very simplistic approach. The human brain is capable of switching from one task to another very rapidly and if the layman calls it multitasking, so be it. As a chef, I can do multiple tasks simultaneously or in quick succession and we call this multitasking….if somebody has another term for this, please share it. Multitasking by any other name ….

    • I think the names we call things are really important. You’re right — we switch from task to task very rapidly, seemingly seamlessly, but to pretend that we’re doing multiple things at once and to keep trying to add more to that list is dangerously misleading.

  3. Especially interesting subject matter for the author, bearing in mind the popular myth that women are better at multi-tasking. In the 90’s we studied some of our programmers and found that an interruption from their task lost a minimum of 15 minutes of productivity (just from the ‘re-immersion time’ to get back to where they were – and that was when only their desk phone was likely to interrupt them. Today someone in the same role has their desktop causing interruptions, their cellphone and likely a tablet too …

    To me much more scary is the number of people who believe they can multi-task while driving. From the classics of eating and drinking, or putting on make-up (usually women, but not always) to shaving (usually the men, but not always) – to the ever more frightening holding a cellphone for a call, or worse texting while driving. All represent a significant threat – and we want to believe we ‘have’ to do these things ‘right now’ ?!!

    What, because we might miss something urgent – well we’ll miss a whole lot when killed in an RTA, and likely be missed by many.

    The madness doesn’t get better though – every day more tech interrupts our train of thought and for what? Status updates, news alerts and promotional offers which can’t be missed.

    Hopefully there will be a re-balancing of things over the next 1-2 generations. There are claims the millennials stereo-typically value balance and quality of life more than recent generations, but they all seem ‘over-subscribed’ to feeds which distract them. There’s a way to go before all this information technology actually improves regular daily life.

    Technology has transformed other areas, but for most people personal information devices have simply compounded an over-committed, over-subscribed, overwhelmed and totally distracted existence.